The Perfect Storm
“We opened the Gates of Heaven with pouring water. And We caused the Earth to gush forth springs, so the water met according to the decree which has been ordained.”—The Qu’ran, Chapter 54, Versus 11-13
“Embark therein; the Name of God will be its course and its anchorage. Surely my Lord is oft forgiving, most merciful. So it sailed with them amidst waves like mountains.”—The Qu’ran, Chapter 11, Verse 41
They moved slowly, watching their footing. The waters of the Shahbazpur Channel had receded slightly, uncovering the ancient path the Ahmed brothers trod almost every day to the family paddies. The path was sodden, its compacted clay surface slippery. Barefooted, they skirted debris left by the flood waters. And, above all, they watched for snakes that would be using the path to slither to safety.
Sumon, the elder brother, walked in front with his walking stick at the ready. A vigorous man who, at 49, seemed to have escaped the vicissitudes of life in this Bangladeshi backwater, carried the stick only for defense. Ashik padded quietly behind, saying nothing. These days he rarely spoke. Since his Anika died in childbirth, Ashik had folded into himself like the petals of a water lily at dusk. He and his son, Rana, had moved into Sumon’s household with his wife and three children. Ashik’s grief had made dealing with everyday life difficult for him.
Ashik put his hand on Sumon’s shoulder. They stopped and watched a black and yellow-banded krait moving sinuously across the path and into the undergrowth.
“I am thankful they are colorful. It is Allah’s way of allowing us one more day. Insha’Allah,” Sumon said, invoking the Arabic phrase he’d learned as a child. Krait bites, he knew, were not always fatal if properly treated. But medical attention was scarce in rural Manpura.
It was October, near the end of the monsoon and cyclone seasons in Bangladesh. This recent monsoon had not been remarkable. Weeks of relentless rain had swollen rivers throughout the country and the small island known as Manpura, far to the south near the Bay of Bengal, was surrounded by floodwaters collected from the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Jamuna, Padma and Meghna Rivers that flowed around the island.
Sumon knew little of the world beyond the island. The Ahmeds had lived for generations near its southern tip, close to the village of Rahmanpur. The farthest he’d travelled had been to Manpura Town in the north to get medical attention for Anjama when she was having difficulty with her second pregnancy.
What he knew of Bangladesh and the rest of the world he’d gleaned from his prized possession—a used solar-powered radio he’d saved for years to buy. Anjama had been against it. She had rattled off a long list of things they really needed.
“What good is knowing about a world you will never see, a world about which you can do nothing?”
“Ah!” Sumon had said, refusing to back down, “Surely, I do not believe I can do anything about the world. But I would like to know what it is doing to us. I fear there are things going on in the world that will bring us harm. We need to prepare as best we can.”
He had said these things, not really understanding why he had said them.
Anjama had looked at him with a strange expression. But nothing further was said.
Now it was a family tradition to listen to the radio each morning at breakfast before the children walked to school and the day’s work began. After dinner they’d listen again. The radio picked up several stations in the capital, Dhaka. Some of what they heard made little sense, particularly the politics. But weather, agricultural programs and music had made the radio a good investment.
As the brothers rounded a bend in the path, they saw a boat grounded on a sandbar in the middle of the river. Here small islands divided the channel into many streams.
It was a traditional fishing boat, but not one they’d ever seen. It looked about 30-feet long, its paint-less wood planking dark gray with age. The prow was long, pointed and high. It had a flat, inward angled stern, also high. A cabin, whose roof was partially covered with remnants of blue plastic sheeting, sat toward the stern. The rudder appeared to be intact. If there were a propeller, it was underwater.
Sumon shouted, “Hallo!” Then again. But no one appeared to be on board or nearby.
The brothers stared at each other.
“Let us take a look.”
Ashik seemed reluctant. “Is it too deep here? What about the current?”
“Someone might be injured,” Sumon persisted. “We will walk farther upstream. It will be easier to wade with the current. It is not that deep here,” he assured him.
They walked 50 more yards and then slid a few feet down the bank into the water. They could feel the current. The bottom was mud. Good footing. They watched for floating debris as they angled toward the boat. After dodging a small tree trunk, a door and the carcass of what appeared to be a goat, they reached the stern and waded onto the submerged sandbar, standing about knee deep.
Sumon “halloed” again, then hauled himself up over the stern. As he climbed, he noticed there was no name. Once there might have been. But it had long faded into obscurity.
The cabin was large, but showed little sign of recent habitation. The storm had torn away its plastic protection from the elements, allowing rain to soak the interior. He found a panel of simple instruments for the motor and a starter button.
The two moved forward and opened two hatches covering the hold where he assumed the catch would be stored. There was about a foot of water, less than he’d expected. Further inspection showed that a frayed rope tied around the bow timberhead had parted, probably freeing the boat for its journey.
“I wonder how far it has come?” He looked at Ashik. “The boat seems sound. We could bail out the hold, get it off the bar and float it home.”
Ashik looked at him as if he were crazy. “But it does not belong to us? Anyway, what would we do with a boat? We grow rice; we are not fishermen.”
He was right, of course, thought Sumon. I know very little about boats. But, Masha’Allah, God has willed it. For some reason He has given us a boat.
He said as much to Ashik. “Who are we to question the will of Allah?”
They found two large, rusty cans and began bailing. Sumon joked that sweat pouring from their bodies might overwhelm the bailing effort. But, after two hours, he could feel the boat start to bob slightly in the current. They jumped overboard, grabbed the rope attached to the prow and pulled. Without too much effort, it floated free. They quickly climbed aboard.
Sumon told Ashik to check the hold for leaks. He threw him a handful of rags from the cabin. “Stuff them in if you find any.”
He rushed to the tiller, pointed the prow at midstream and the current slowly carried them toward home.
In that first short voyage, Sumon learned several important things about boats. First, a rudder is only effective if a boat is motoring or under sail. Try as he might to steer, the vessel simply went where the current dictated. The channel was widening, the current taking them farther from shore. How, he wondered, could he beach it without the ability to steer?
The second important lesson was always to check your equipment before shoving off. The two had missed the fact that there was no anchor on board. An anchor, Sumon thought, would at least have allowed me to stop the boat when needed.
Hoping against hope, Sumon hit the motor start button. Nothing. Not a sound. He was sure the battery was dead.
The only solution that came to mind was to tie a rope to the stern, wade or swim to shore and tie it off. But, was there rope?
“Ashik,” he yelled, “we need a lot of rope. There’s a storage bin in front of the cabin. Check there. I can’t steer. We need to jump in, make it to shore and tie it off. Otherwise, we’re going to lose the boat.”
“Yes, maybe 100 feet,” was the response.
Sumon tied the rope to a timberhead on the left rear of the stern and its end around his waist. He jumped in but couldn’t touch bottom. Ashik followed and they began to swim the 50 yards to shore as quickly as they could. Soon the rope played out and Sumon found himself being dragged along by the boat—still no footing. To relieve the tension, he turned toward the boat and swam parallel and diagonally toward the shore fast as he could, using the current for additional speed.
Just as the rope again began to lose slack, he touched bottom and dug his feet into the welcomed mud. Ashik was close behind. He, too, grabbed the rope and planted his feet. They stopped the boat’s forward motion, waded to shore and, with effort, tied it off on a large mangrove trunk.
Winded and soaked, the brothers sat on the muddy trail.
“Why are we doing this?” Ashik asked, once he’d caught his breath.
“I, too, wonder. But, my brother, something tells me it is the right thing to do.”
The Ahmed compound was just around the next bend.
Sumon had been so focused on freeing the boat and floating it home he hadn’t considered the next steps. Where would he keep it? He couldn’t just tie it off in front of his compound without raising unwanted questions. He was not ashamed of what he’d done. This is not, he told himself, stealing. If the boat’s true owners showed up, he’d gladly return it.
But, perhaps that was best. Take it home. Let people see it. Explain that he and Ashik had saved the boat from being washed out to sea. If its owners turn up to claim it, Insha’Allah.
So the brothers hefted the rope and staggered down the path, dragging the boat about a half mile to home. There they pulled the prow, hand over hand, onto the small beach they kept clear between the mangroves. Ashik ran off to find the sledge hammer and a stake to secure the boat.
Hearing the commotion, Anjama and the children, already home from school, gathered on the beach and regarded the boat as some sort of apparition. Everyone had questions. Sumon raised his hand to quiet the hubbub. He explained, turning the story into a tale of high adventure for the kids’ benefit. Anjama, as always, looked suspicious.
“And if the owners don’t come to claim it, then what? We are stuck with this old wreck?”
Sumon wasn’t going to tell her about his plans to repair and make it seaworthy. He’d keep that argument for later. “Well, after a time, we could probably sell it to one of our fisher folk friends,” he said with feigned enthusiasm.
Anjama, obviously, wasn’t convinced, but decided not to pursue the discussion.
The next few days found Sumon and Ashik tending to the family paddies. The second crop of the year was nearly ready for harvest. The Ahmed’s fields were among the highest in the area, about 10-feet above the average river level. The advantage was they were less prone to flood damage, either by a monsoon’s fresh water rushing down from the north or salt water pushed up river by a cyclone blowing in from the Bay of Bengal.
Sumon knew rising sea levels were forcing salt water ever farther inland throughout southern Bangladesh. To the west of Manpura, mangroves in the 8,000 square-mile Sundarbans National Park—the world’s largest mangrove forest—were gradually were dying. The park was also a reserve for the few Bengal tigers still roaming free.
The disadvantage of their elevation was the need to pump water up from the river when irrigation was required. The ancient pumping system, constructed generations ago, required constant attention. In preparation for the coming dry season, Sumon had disassembled, cleaned and oiled the large hand pump. He also made new gaskets from discarded inner tubes. Gaskets for the pump hadn’t been available for decades. The family was waiting for a government grant to buy a small diesel-powered unit, but never seemed to rise to the top of the waiting list.
As they walked home after a long day in the fields, Ashik asked Sumon what he really intended to do with the boat. They walked in silence for a moment while Sumon considered his answer.
“I intend to fix it up; make it seaworthy. I wish I could give you a good reason. But I cannot explain it. I am not a visionary man. But I believe the boat is important to our family. Will you trust and help me?”
“Brother,” Ashik said, “I have never known you not to have good reasons for the things you do. So I am with you in this.”
Sumon had a cousin and childhood friend who operated an engine repair shop, catering primarily to area fishermen. Early one morning he rode the family bicycle into the village to visit Rasel.
After customary greetings, Sumon mentioned the rescued boat he’d hope to repair.
“I have heard of this, cousin,” he said with a smile. “It is much talked about among my customers.”
“And what are they saying?”
“Well, for one thing, they hope you do not decide to become a fisherman. They fear for their livelihoods!” They laughed.
“I cannot today, but tomorrow I will come in the morning to see what needs to be done.”
As Sumon rode home he wondered how he would pay his cousin should it come to that. Perhaps we could help him harvest the small paddy he tends to supplement his income, he thought. Or exchange rice for work after the harvest.
True to his word, Rasel peddled his ramshackle rickshaw, tools and equipment bouncing in the back, into their yard just after breakfast. Sumon and Ashik were waiting. Anjama, he knew, was watching from the house. There would be a reckoning later.
“Well,” Rasel said, slightly out of breath, “let us see this glorious hulk of yours.”
He picked up his tool box and gave Ashik a grimy battery to carry. “I thought we might need juice if we are to get it started. And I brought some diesel if we need it.”
Rasel waded alongside the boat, lifted his tool box up and clambered over the side. He reached down, took the battery from Ashik, and quickly moved to the cabin. The two brothers followed.
He removed the engine cover and, whistling out of tune, surveyed the compartment with a flashlight. “A Deutz 150-HP diesel, air cooled. Chinese. Common around here. Should not be hard to get parts if needed. Looks pretty clean and dry. That is good,” he said, almost to himself.
He pushed the starter and got the same silence that had greeted Sumon. He crawled into the compartment, unhooked the battery and, with a grunt, heaved it up onto the deck. Sumon handed him the other battery.
“Hit the starter, Sumon. Let us see if it turns over.”
Sumon did and it did. But the engine didn’t catch.
Rasel probed the fuel tank and found a few inches. Probably moisture, he said, and asked Rashik to return to the rickshaw and bring the can of fuel. While waiting, he checked the oil level. With fresh fuel, the engine sputtered reluctantly into life, but not without Rasel’s expert ministrations of the choke and throttle.
Once it had warmed up and was running more-or-less smoothly, he shouted, “Is the prop free?” Sumon said it was, so Rasel carefully slipped the engine into gear—forward and then reverse. He revved it slowly, watching the tach. He listened carefully and shut it down.
As he wiped his greasy hands on a rag, Rasel delivered his diagnosis: “Probably just needs fresh fuel, oil, filter and, of course, a battery.”
“And will I have to sell the goats to be able to afford this?” Sumon asked nervously.
“No, cousin, but I might consider taking your first child.”
Even Ashik laughed.
Rasel told them the labor would be minimal. In fact, the brothers could probably do it themselves. As for parts, he said that fuel, oil, filter and used battery would be about 500 Taka.
“I’m afraid I would need cash. That good looking young goat I saw might bring that much. Or I’d be happy to wait for payment until you’ve marketed your surplus rice.”
They walked up from the beach. Sumon said he’d think about it and let him know soon. As Rasel rattled off, Sumon began mentally to prepare for the imminent confrontation with Anjama.
By the time Sumon returned for dinner, he had marshaled all his arguments. He could see she wasn’t happy, but nothing was said during dinner. In fact, she had prepared his favorite spicy dal—red lentils, onions, garlic, tomatoes, spices and cilantro—with freshly baked roti.
But, when they crawled into their bed, Anjama asked quietly why he hadn’t asked her about repairing the boat. Sumon was caught off guard. He’d expected a tirade.
“I just wanted to learn how bad it was and whether we could afford to get it running before I spoke with you. I did not want you to worry without reason,” he said.
“Can it be fixed? And at what cost?”
He related what Rasel had told him.
“Our best doe? Or 500 Taka in rice? That is the cost? And you would have us pay this?” she asked, voice rising slightly.
Sumon nodded, then realized she couldn’t see him in the dark. “Yes.”
“Sumon, I do not understand why you would waste what little we have in this way. You are not a fisherman. Nor do we have time or money to take pleasure cruises on the Shahbazpur. What is it you would do with this boat?”
Sumon sighed. “I do not know. All I know is that Allah gave us the boat for a reason, Allahu Akbar. If you do not trust in me, then trust in Him.”
Realizing she had lost the argument, Anjama rolled over and said nothing. Soon he heard her breathing quietly. Sumon lay on his back and watched as moonlight filtering through the window traveled slowly along the wall. The moon was down before he slept.
The repairs proceeded in fits and starts. It was time to harvest the rice and the days of backbreaking labor left little time to devote to the boat. Still, Sumon tried to do something every day.
The first big project was—when the boat rode high on the tide—to slip palm logs beneath and place props to hold it upright when the tide receded. Sumon had begged a supply of pitch from friendly boat owners to caulk leaks. Almost to a man they had smiled and shook their heads as Sumon walked away carrying pots of the sticky substance. It would have to be heated before it would flow between cracks in the hull.
With the children’s enthusiastic help, they cleaned trash out of the cabin and scrubbed it down. Sumon and Ashik tore the remnants of plastic from the roof and replaced them with a double layer of tarp, tacked down with strips of wood.
They also cleaned the hold and found, to their surprise, a bilge pump they hadn’t noticed before. Sumon tore it apart, cleaned, oiled it and—as was his custom with their irrigation pump—fashioned new gaskets from an inner tube. The hatch covers didn’t fit tightly, so he also outfitted them with rubber seals to help keep the hold dry. He did the same for the engine cover.
For an anchor, Sumon had the blacksmith tap the lid of a large oil can and weld an eye bolt. He filled the can with sand and the blacksmith welded the lid shut. It took the two brothers to carry the anchor to the boat, hung on a thick plank supported on their shoulders.
Meanwhile, Anjama, with a heavy heart, found a buyer for the goat. She did well and raised enough to pay for parts, oil and fuel. Sumon also bought two beaten up jerry cans to transport the fuel. The brothers were able to make the necessary repairs and, to their great satisfaction, the engine was soon running smoothly.
The end of the month was near. With November would come cooler, dry weather and the end of the monsoon and cyclone seasons until they began again in April. But Sumon had heard on the radio that, because of the warming Earth, the seasons were lengthening. He had noticed this even before it had been announced on the morning weather program to which the family listened.
Insha’Allah, he thought, there will be no more bad weather this year.
But, over the next several days, weather news on his radio was disquieting. One morning, he heard that a low-pressure system forming in the North Indian Ocean had the potential to create a post-season cyclone.
“We’ll be watching to see how it develops,” he was promised.
The next day, they were told that unseasonably hot temperatures made it possible the monsoon season would continue into November. Sumon knew that heavy monsoon rains were caused by hot air rising above the land, sucking in cooler air from the ocean. In the same broadcast, a weather expert also explained that continuing heat in the region was causing snow and ice on the mountains of Nepal to melt faster than normal.
“This additional water,” he warned, “will flow into the Brahmaputra, among others, and is likely to raise the level of our river system, perhaps beyond flood stage in some low-lying areas.”
And, if that weren’t enough, it appeared the low-pressure system had coalesced and been upgraded to a cyclonic storm with sustained winds of 55 miles an hour. Its direction was indefinite, but, if it continued to gain strength, the historic path for these storms would be north into the Bay of Bengal, with possible landfall on Bangladesh.
“I know radio listeners can’t see the satellite picture I’m holding, but let me describe it to you. Imagine a length of white cotton fiber wrapped very tightly and flat. Imagine it is rotating counterclockwise with a bright blue eye in the center. That’s how the storm appears. It has been named “Sagar,” the next name on list for Indian Ocean cyclones.”
Sumon went to bed that night with a sense of foreboding. As the rains began pattering on the tin roof, he made a decision.
During the long and sleepless night, Sumon made a mental list of all that had to be done. He woke everyone before the usual time. Complaints from the children quickly quieted when they saw the look on his face.
“We have much to do,” he said, “and very little time.” He asked Anjama to prepare a quick but filling breakfast while he explained.
“We are facing very dangerous weather. I believe there is nothing to be done but to fill the boat with food, drinking water, our animals and more fuel so we can ride out the storm. We will not be safe on land,” he said. The children looked at him, round eyed.
Sumon assigned tasks for everyone. Ashik would take the bicycle to the village and fill the two cans with more fuel, using what money they had left. Considering the muddy road and pathway, he would probably have to push the bicycle home with the cans hanging on either side. If necessary, he would go back for more to ensure the tank was full. He and the boys would put the chickens in the small coop. When the time came, they would load the coop and their two remaining goats in the hold. They would also fill all the plastic jugs they could with water from the well.
Meanwhile Anjama and the girls would pick the ripe and almost ripe vegetables and fruit in the garden, packing them in baskets. Anjama would also supervise packing necessary clothing and household items in boxes.
“Don’t forget the brazier, charcoal and lanterns,” he reminded her. “I will wrap as many bags of rice and beans in plastic as I can and store them in the hold,” he said.
He stopped and looked at everyone. He saw fear and disbelief.
“We will come home after the storm,” Sumi, his eldest daughter, stated with a hopeful look. “Insha’Allah,” Sumon said. Her face fell.
The next three hours were a madhouse of activity with everyone coming and going. The increasingly heavy rain and wind made it difficult. Sumon checked the radio once more before sealing it in a plastic bag.
The news was worse. The cyclone had intensified. It was now Category Three with winds exceeding 111 miles-per-hour. The radio said it was heading for the Bangladeshi coast and, at its current speed, would arrive in less than two days. Landfall would probably coincide with a high tide, the worst of all possible situations.
Meanwhile, the monsoon had intensified and rivers throughout the country were rising rapidly. All that water, Sumon knew, was heading south and would rage around the island through channels on the west and east.
It was early afternoon when the goats were manhandled onboard and into the hold. Sumon had supervised the loading, trying to ensure weight was carefully distributed. He had placed the heavy sacks of rice and beans along the keel and tied them off.
The beach had already disappeared under the rising flood. The stake holding the boat to shore was underwater. With everyone and everything on board, he had Ashik wade out and untie the line. He backed the boat into the current, gunned the engine and turned upstream. His plan was to motor several hundred yards to the shelter of a small island at midstream, tie off the boat and shut down the engine to save fuel. This way, he reasoned, they could rise with the flood and be protected by the island’s shadow from much of the debris hurtling downstream.
He had no idea what he would do when the cyclone roared ashore from the south.
The rain fell in sheets. Sumon often felt as if he were underwater. The straw hat he wore in the fields had quickly blown away. The rain cascaded over his face, blocking vision. He could have stepped into the cabin, but was afraid he might lose the tether to the island, requiring him to start the engine and maneuver the boat. In any case, the cabin didn’t provide that much protection. It was open at both ends and the family, huddled together, tried in vain to stay dry. He suggested they get into the hold where it would be drier. Ashik was already there, working the pump.
Occasionally the heavy rain relented for a few moments. Sumon could see debris on either side of the island moving as fast as he could pedal the bicycle. Whole trees, animal carcasses, mangled structures paraded by. In the roiling waters it was hard to tell, but once he thought he saw a corpse. Another time, just as the rain began again in earnest, he swore he saw two people clinging to what might have been the wall of a shack floating like a raft on the swollen river.
Sumon suddenly had a strange vision. He saw a huge underwater city made of broken buildings, trees, boats and vehicles deposited on the ocean floor by the decades of flood waters. The city was inhabited by many thousands of ghosts floating aimlessly in and out of buildings and up and down crooked streets. Among them floated countless animal apparitions, livestock gathered in herds or flocks; predators—including the last Bengal tiger—moving menacingly among them.
Sumon wiped the water from his eyes and with it, he hoped, the nightmare scene suggesting the fate of his people. I must stay alert.
Day was turning into night. The day had been so dark that, initially, it was difficult to tell the difference. But gradually, Sumon could no longer see the island only 25 yards ahead. The rising flood waters were slowly submerging the island. The time would soon come when the boat would no longer benefit from its shadow. He knew the current would scour away the soil, exposing tree roots. They would soon start to topple and menace the boat. His tether would be lost.
Insha’Allah, this won’t happen until morning so I can see to take the boat to mid-channel and, with Ashik’s help, avoid debris. He knew he would then have to use precious fuel to try to keep the boat in place. There would be no more shelter, and he couldn’t let them be beaten south by the raging flood waters into the teeth of the coming cyclone.
Night descended—the blackest night Sumon had ever known. He was not a man prone to fear. But the all-enveloping darkness disoriented him. He had absolutely no point of reference. It was impossible to keep a lantern lit. Once in a while he would flip on the flashlight just for few seconds to provide some comforting light.
Barred vision, his other senses seemed heightened. He could hear the eerie keening of the wind in the now barren branches of the island’s trees. He could feel the water rushing along the sides of the boat. The “thunk” of debris hitting the boat seemed magnified and sent shivers down his spine.
Sometime during the night, Ashik stumbled up from the hold to report that the pump was keeping up with leaks. He gave Sumon water and a mango. He said the family was as dry and comfortable as could be expected and wondered if he could take over to give him some rest.
“Thanks, brother,” Sumon shouted over the roar, “but I fear we may soon have to abandon our shelter behind the island when it is submerged. I need to be ready. It is best you continue on the pump. And please instruct Anjama and Sumi how to work it. They will need to replace you when we move into the channel. I will need you on the bow to help me avoid debris.”
So Sumon sat, tiller in hand, waiting for whichever came first—loss of their umbilical to the island or daylight.
To occupy his mind, he thought of what he would do when the cyclone struck. It will probably be tomorrow, he thought. Sumon remembered that cyclone winds wrap counterclockwise around the eye. He had never owned a watch, but he knew what counterclockwise meant. That means the winds would be screaming in from the east. How damaging the winds and storm surge would be depended on where the center of the storm hit.In any case, he believed the boat would best be placed as far from the gulf as possible and along the west side of the island. Manpura would help block some of the storm’s fury. The east side would take the brunt of it. Staying as far north as possible would lessen the impact of the inevitable storm surge.
Over the years he had experienced the many storms that had hit the region. He hoped he understood the best thing to do, in this case, with a boat. He knew, at some point, he would have to point it south into the coming maelstrom to survive its winds and the storm surge.
He prayed the fuel would last.
Sometime during the long night, the rain lessened to a steady drizzle. The wind, which had been from the south, providing cooler air to fuel the monsoon, was shifting to the east, announcing the imminent arrival of “Sagar.”
In the grayness of dawn, Sumon could see that the island was completely underwater. The rope to the anchoring tree was submerged. Trees were toppling, being carried swiftly downstream, some coming close to the boat. He shouted for Ashik. They had to be ready to cut and run.
Before Ashik made it to the bow, Sumon felt the boat slipping backward. The top of the tree to which it was tied was slowly falling toward them into the water.
“Ashik, cut the line,” he shouted. He hacked at it, wielding the machete left there for that purpose. Meanwhile, Sumon started the engine and, once the line was cut, backed away from island that had served them so well.
For the rest of the day, the brothers did the best they could to dodge debris flung by the raging flood waters. Sumon took cues from Ashik positioned on the bow. They couldn’t miss them all. But the boat’s long and narrow prow helped push debris aside. Sumi came up from the hold to announce that water was rising despite their efforts. She wondered if she could watch for debris so the pump could benefit from Ashik’s strength. Sumon agreed and Ashik instructed her on what to do. Soon he was steering following her directions.
Sumon worked the throttle carefully. He picked a tree still standing on the edge of the river as a marker and tried to use only enough power to keep them abreast. But the current was so fast he was afraid he was using too much fuel.
Now he worried about when he should turn and head south to face the monster bent on their destruction. Late in the afternoon, that decision was made for him.
Wind screaming in his ear, rain blowing sideways, smacking the right side of his face, Sumon suddenly felt the stern dip slightly. He knew it was time.
He shouted to Sumi: “Go below. Tell everyone to hang on and Ashik to keep pumping.”
Sumon tied himself to davits in the cockpit and, when Sumi was safely below, applied full power and wheeled the boat around. The maneuver was dangerous. He feared the full force of the flood might capsize the boat when broadside. He also prayed it wouldn’t be hit by a massive tree or wreckage while turning.
The boat did tip when hit by the flood. But it quickly righted as he completed the turn.
Now he was speeding south along with the current, debris matching his speed to left and right. He looked ahead and his heart almost stopped. Before him was a wall of gray-green water towering at least 20 feet above the channel. The top was curling. White froth blew in sheets from the crest, powered by winds of unimaginable fury.
Instinct told him to apply full power and hit the wave head on. If not, all was surely lost.
It was only seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. At first the sharp bow cleaved the water, sending it rushing down the sides of the boat until it climbed over the gunnels and rushed toward Sumon like a raging water buffalo. The boat rose higher and higher, climbing the mountain of water. Then it seemed to slip backwards. The stern was underwater. Sumon was submerged, saved only by the ropes. The engine screamed. Sumon hung onto the tiller, trying to keep the boat pointing straight. As the curl crashed over the boat, it was entirely underwater.
Then the boat crested the wave and slid down its backside, shedding water as it went. Sumon watched with horror as the prow plowed farther and farther underwater back to the second hatch cover before it leveled and, like a cork, popped back to the surface.“Al-hamdu lillāh, thanks be to Allah,” Sumon shouted.
But the ordeal wasn’t over. Smaller following waves had to be crested. And Sumon had to motor carefully as close as possible to what was left of Manpura’s western shore to help block the furious winds that buffeted the sodden craft.
Ashik climbed out of the hold.
“Everyone is okay,” he shouted over the wailing wind. “Some cuts and bruises. I think Rana may have a broken arm. Sprained, at least. Everything went flying. We have over a foot of water, but I think the pump can hold it.”
Sumon asked him to check the fuel level before going back to pump.
“Looks like less than half a tank.”
Early the next afternoon, the storm had dissipated as it pushed in over the land. Sumon brought out the radio to learn whatever he could. Anjama and the girls brought the brazier up and heated water for tea and their first hot meal in three days.
To conserve fuel, the brothers wrestled the anchor overboard. The boat rocked, not too gently, close to the southern tip of Manpura. Sumon, exhausted almost beyond salvation, called the family together.
“We have survived the storm, Al-hamdu lillāh,” he said. He surveyed the cuts, bruises and Rana’s right arm in a sling. “But we are far from safe yet. What I am going to say will not make you happy. But it is what we must do.”
He took a sip of tea.
“We cannot go home because there is no home. You heard the radio. All of southern Bangladesh is destroyed.
“Yes, our land is still there. But it has been ruined by salt water. Even if we could rebuild, we couldn’t support ourselves. Even if we could rebuild, there will be more and more storms like this one to destroy us again and again.
“The government is setting up refugee camps, but they won’t be ready for weeks. And how could we get there? We don’t have enough fuel.
“The only answer is to resettle in the hills of Chittagong. We will be safe there. We can sell the boat and use the money to buy a place away from the ocean where we can live peacefully. We have food and our animals to get us started. Chittagong is only about half a day east and I think we have enough fuel.”
He stopped. Anjama wept silently, but there were no arguments.
“The boat is taking water, so we must push on. I don’t want to travel at night but we have no choice. Everyone eat, drink and rest.”
With the anchor back aboard, Ashik took the tiller. It would have been safer to hug the coast, but, to have enough fuel, Sumon told him to take a southeast heading around the tip of neighboring Hatiya Island and then east across bay. He lay down in a corner of the cabin and slept. Anjama covered him with a thin blanket that, miraculously, had stayed almost dry.
The sky was lightening to the east when Ashik shook Sumon’s shoulder. Anjama was at the tiller. “There is something you must see, brother,” he said, pointing toward the dawn. On the horizon were smudges—the hills of Chittagong.
“We have several inches of fuel left. I think we’ll make it,” Ashik said.
Sumon gradually got to his feet. Everything hurt. He walked to the bow and looked down at the prow as it neatly split the water. The ocean was amazingly flat with only the slightest of swells.
Ahead and on the right he thought he saw something in the water. He was about to warn Anjama to steer left, when the object resolved into a large tree truck with what appeared to be two people clinging to it.
“Stop the engine and steer right,” he shouted.
Sumon jumped into the water and swam the short distance to the tree trunk. It was light enough to see it was a woman and what appeared to be a young boy. They were tied to the tree. As he got closer, it was clear they were dead.
He reached the boy first. His head was above water. His eyes were closed; face peaceful. One arm, possibly broken, was in the water waving in the current as if to greet him. The woman was face down, her long hair floating like a black halo around her head. He pulled out his knife, cut the rope and turned her over. Her frozen expression was also peaceful, accepting. Her eyes were open; he closed them.
There was nothing he could do but cut their bonds and let them sink to a watery grave. He tied them at the waist so they would remain together on their journey. He let them go, watching as they sank slowly into the dark waters. Her hair floated above her head, undulating gently in current. The boy’s arm continued to wave as he sank out of sight.
As Sumon swam back to the boat, he again saw his vision of the undersea city of the dead.
The hills of Chittagong were now sharply etched on the horizon as the sun prepared to rise behind them. Sumon was sitting at the bow. The pink disk of the sun peeked above the hills. It shot a streak of light across the gently rolling, silver-gray waters. The rosy light seemed to quiver and pulsate as it skipped over tops of the swells.
Sumon thought he should pray to give thanks for their deliverance. But he was too agitated. Not agitated, he thought. Angry. As he watched the sun slowly rising, the anger built. He looked directly into the sun, hoping it would burn away the things he had seen. He had never known such anger.
He said: “Lord, are we not already among your poorest, most humble, most downtrodden people. Are our sins so iniquitous as to cause you to destroy us in this way? To wash men, women and children off the face of the Earth? To banish whole generations of your people to watery graves? Why, Lord? Why?”
Sumon bowed his head. The sun’s afterimage glowed behind his closed eyes. He listened.
There was no answer.
Lorin Robinson’s career has been split primarily between university teaching/administration and business.He chaired the Journalism Department at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls for 10 years after founding and managing the school’s public radio station. He then joined 3M Company as a marketing communications manager. After 24 years at 3M, he returned to teaching—in the Graduate College of Business, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis.Robinson has BS and MS Degrees in Journalism from Northwestern University and a PhD in Communication from the University of Minnesota. Over the years he has also worked as a journalist, photojournalist, magazine writer and radio announcer. He and his wife, Linda, split their time between Lake Elmo, MN; Taos, NM and Baja California Sur, Mexico.
His current book - "Tales from The Warming" - is published by Open Books.